Mindfulness practice instructions go like this: “focus on breath, mind wanders, you become aware mind wanders, you bring our attention back to breath.”
Like jumping into the middle of a moving stream, in the beginning you tread water just to survive a half hour (or five minutes) of stillness and silence. You learn how to move your arms and legs (focus on breath), but don’t always stop to think about what this practice means or why you do it.
When you swim in the ocean, you keep your head above water so you can continue breathing. You swim to get from point A to point B, and you swim because it’s fun. With mindfulness, you do the same thing. You breathe to keep your head above the murky water of entangled thoughts, emotions, and sensations…you learn to become aware of what’s happening in the moment. But you also learn how to focus your attention so you can live fully, not just survive. You learn to cultivate a particular kind of life. A meaningful life. A calm life. A happy life.
Talking about abstract concepts like mind and feelings and mindfulness can get complicated, so let’s pause here for a moment and talk vocabulary.
You might think of happiness as situational pleasure or an enjoyable experience, like eating a double scoop of chocolate chip ice cream on a cake cone. Or you might think of happiness as a chain of pleasant experiences, like an afternoon of hiking in the mountains followed by cheese pizza and then ice cream with someone you like. You might think of happiness as a big house in a safe neighborhood, winning the lottery, or retiring from a job you’ve tolerated for twenty years.
If you close your eyes, and intentionally think about happiness, what do you imagine? A relationship without all the messiness of life? World travel? A new wardrobe? A bigger car? More time off from work? 500 friends on FaceBook? Certainly, these situations and experiences can evoke a sense of momentary happiness, or pleasure, or even joy. But happiness in the mindfulness world is deeper than momentary or situational pleasure.
For the purposes of this article, you can think of happiness as attitude or disposition, a base level or foundation of functioning from which you experience all of what life offers…the pleasant and the unpleasant.
Mindfulness and suffering
Mindful happiness is not an addition of an experience, but an absence of suffering.
Just as happiness is different from pleasure, suffering is different from pain. Life includes pain. The physical pain of a fractured femur, the emotional pain of a broken heart, the spiritual pain of feeling disconnected from others, and the cognitive pain of your inner critic (we all have one).
Suffering comes from efforts to avoid pain (aversion). And suffering comes from reaching, with too much expectation and illusion of control, for pleasure, even happiness (clinging).
You can see this clearly from the use of intoxicants or setting a goal of enlightenment. Some of us, not you I know, use drugs or alcohol to avoid pain; or we meditate in the hope of attaining enlightenment, the high. This can work in the moment, but eventually, and maybe even just a few hours later, reality crashes the party and we get caught in the cycle of avoiding pain by chasing pleasure again. It’s not a sustainable way to live.
Awareness, attention, equanimity
The three big words in mindfulness practice are awareness, attention, and equanimity. Through the formal practice of sitting in silence and stillness, you develop awareness about who you are, how you think, how you feel, how you respond and react to internal and external stimuli.
In the simplest terms, you are sitting, focusing on your breath, the air passing in and out of your nostrils, your lungs expanding and contracting, the abdomen rising and falling. Before you can count five breaths, the mind takes off like a shot to here there and everywhere without the time or distance constraints of the physical world.
Sometimes mind remembers or rehearses conversations, the ones you’ve visited 500 times already; sometimes mind travels to worrying about what if; sometimes to problem-solving. Each mind has its favorite haunts.
With guidance or even on your own, you realize “Thinking.” You label what mind is doing. Or “Sadness.” The idea is to keep it simple. Simple prevents the mind from getting entangled in story. This is the awareness. You become aware that your mind has taken off again; you become aware that your body feels agitated, restless; or you become aware that a screaming fire engine is passing. Awareness.
From there, you decide to be curious about the thoughts, feelings, memories, problems, body sensations or to turn your attention back to the breath or the body or whatever else you have defined as your anchor to the present moment. This is attention. Rather than mindless thinking monopolizing your attention, you learn to direct it, mindfully with awareness.
The intent is not to clear the mind of all thought, but to prevent yourself from getting pulled down and entangled in the elaborate stories you weave around the thoughts.
That’s where equanimity comes in. After practicing for some time…I don’t know how long that will be for you…and oh, by the way, this equanimity comes and goes…you develop what Shinzen Young refers to as a small distance or step back from the body’s responses (emotions, a.k.a. inner motions) to stimuli. Think of that fire engine siren. I don’t know about you, but my body usually flinches when I hear the sirens and then my mind wonders who’s hurt, what’s on fire, do I need to do something?
Equanimity or inner calm allows you to step back from that response and the stories about where the fire engine is headed. With equanimity, you still have those thoughts. But you don’t get caught up in the spin cycle of past events, elaborate webs of future worries or memories.
Awareness with equanimity gives you freedom from mindlessness, stories, and suffering.
Thinking or not thinking
The idea is not to clear the mind, but to be able to observe whatever happens without getting caught in what can become ever-growing elaborate thinking. And then sometimes…with curiosity and an open mind…you can learn from those thoughts.
That’s one of the reasons this practice is called Insight Meditation. When you sit with yourself, you have the opportunity to learn about you, your thinking, your feeling, your sources of happiness, pain, and suffering. You can learn to do something different. As Pema Chodron explains, when we meditate, we learn that no matter what happens, we will be there with awareness, attention, and equanimity.
Please do not believe what I have written here even though all of it comes from people before me who know far more than I do. This is not a top-down practice. Your practice, your life, is your experiment. Try it for yourself. Sit in silence for five minutes. You may be surprised at how quickly and readily your mind gets caught up in stories. Then be curious. Do the stories cause you suffering?
Pain is real; suffering is a product of your imagination.